The ‘Be Heard Act’: Addressing the Impact of #MeToo at Work
with Gaylynn Burroughs of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights
Since 2017, sexual-misconduct allegations against high-profile people have made headlines globally.
Gaylynn Burroughs of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights discusses the impact of the #MeToo movement and the implications of proposed landmark legislation.
Mar 02, 2020
Hyland: In 2017, the hashtag MeToo went viral following sexual harassment and assault allegations against several high-profile men. Hello, and welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I'm Sheila Hyland. What impact has Me Too had on the landscape for American workers in general? Gaylynn Burroughs, senior policy counsel of The Leadership Conference on Civil & Human Rights, joins me to talk about proposed legislation called the BE HEARD Act. That stands for "bringing an end to harassment by enhancing accountability and rejecting discrimination" in the workplace. Gaylynn, thank you for being our guest today.
Burroughs: Thanks for having me.
Hyland: So, the Me Too movement brought attention to harassment and discrimination in the workforce, but the movement actually left out certain workers. Who are they, and how did that happen?
Burroughs: So, when the Me Too movement started, it was actually centered on women of color and black women in particular. But when it went viral, I think the focus shifted to more of these high-profile cases. And so we have to remember that the folks who are much more vulnerable to the impacts and effects of workplace harassment and discrimination are low-wage workers, women of color, and other people who are marginalized in our society.
Hyland: This BE HEARD legislation -- Break down what it would mean and who it would help, how it would help them.
BURROUGHS: So, we all deserve dignity in the workplace, and we all should be able to go to work knowing that we're going to be treated fairly, equally, and with respect. And for too many people, that's just not the case. Despite our federal civil-rights laws, so many people still face workplace harassment and discrimination in the workplace. And so this bill really does update and strengthen the laws to include all working people. It responds to changes in our workplace and changes in our understanding of what is acceptable behavior in the workplace.
Hyland: And one of the things it also wants to do is require employers to pay minimum wage for workers who receive tips.
Hyland: How does that play into this? Why is that so important?
Burroughs: Well, it's a hugely important prevention strategy. So, a lot of times, when we think about prevention, we're thinking about training, we're thinking about policies, but there are workplace structures that lend themselves to sexual harassment. And one of them is the tipped minimum wage. So, if you're a tipped worker and you're relying on customers to make even a basic salary -- the tipped minimum wage is $2.13 in this country -- you feel like you have to tolerate and put up with harassment that you wouldn't otherwise have to deal with. And you're reliant on your supervisor for shifts. And so if you don't get the shifts that you need because customers are complaining -- we live in a society where the customer is always right -- then that really impacts your ability to make a living. So you're less likely to report, and it creates a culture of sexual harassment in especially the restaurant industry.
Hyland: Interesting, because I'm sure many of us would not have even thought about that. Something else it requires employers to do is to work toward preventing harassment and discrimination in the workplace. How does that look?
Burroughs: So, part of it is the training and the information about your rights. A part of it is also encouraging transparency. So, for a lot of companies, when they hire employees, they make them sign these nondisclosure agreements, which really prevent people from talking about the harassment and the conduct that they have experienced in the workplace. So this bill, the BE HEARD Act, would actually prohibit pre-dispute nondisclosure agreements so that people are able to talk about their experiences. One of the things you mentioned in Me Too -- One of the things that was really great about Me Too was that a lot of women were coming forward and telling their stories, which empowered other women in all kinds of sectors to come forward and tell their stories.
Hyland: Some women have come forward to tell their stories in the courts. This is also changing the way accusers are looked at in court, too.
Burroughs: Correct. So, federal courts have interpreted our civil-rights laws very narrowly in ways that don't match up with our current understandings of what it means to be harassed in the workplace. So, for example, an employee sued her supervisor for sexual harassment. He had subjected her to offensive comments. He had rubbed himself against her, would pick her up physically and tried to kiss her. And a federal court said, "Well, that isn't severe enough to be considered sexual harassment because it only happened 16 times over the course of four years." Clearly, that is not our understanding of sexual harassment today. And so we need to update how the courts interpret the law to give people a fighting chance to achieve justice in the court system.
Hyland: We should also mention, too, that this bill has the backing of some very prominent organizations -- the AFL-CIO, SEIU, et cetera.
Hyland: How many groups are backing this legislation? Oh, there are dozens of groups backing the legislation, and more groups are being added every day. You mentioned a lot of the union support. We also have support from prominent women's rights organizations, organizations that deal with sexual harassment and sexual violence writ large, not just in the workplace. And we also have support from NAACP and other civil-rights groups.
Hyland: Also, LGBTQ community members are not left out of this either.
Burroughs: No. We are leaving no one behind in this bill. So, this bill clarifies that LGBTQ workers are also protected under our workplace harassment laws.
Hyland: All right. The BE HEARD Act.
Burroughs: Correct. And if people want to learn more about the BE HEARD Act, they can go to beheardact.org, and you can also take action and contact your Congressmember to tell them to support the bill, as well.
Hyland: Gaylynn Burroughs, thank you so much for being our guest today on "Comcast Newsmakers." And thanks to you for watching. For more great conversations with leaders from your community and across the nation, visit comcastnewsmakers.com. I'm Sheila Hyland.